For pretty much every single family sitcom that enjoys a run of multiple seasons, there comes a point where change has to be realistically acknowledged and explored. As the seasons roll on, the character types that defined the earliest episodes have to shift in order to avoid becoming stale. For Modern Family, adapting has been a hit and miss game. Gloria still feels like the same character she’s always been, if perhaps slightly toned down, Manny has always struggled with any sense of self awareness, and perhaps most noticeably, Cam and Mitchell haven’t grown much despite all they’ve been through.

In some ways, that’s perfectly acceptable. Aging sitcoms rely on remaining familiar, giving the viewer exactly what they’re looking for without rocking the creative boat too much. That can be rewarding in its own right for long-time viewers, but there’s something to be said for a sitcom that can keep its comedic vision while also opening up new storytelling possibilities when it comes to the more dramatic, human storylines (Cheers remains the benchmark, of course). Modern Family has always hinted at the conflict that comes with unavoidable change, especially when it comes to the kids, but it’s never really gone all in; even last season’s college-focused storylines, and Haley’s “adult” relationship, were plot points ignored in many episodes.

“The Long Goodbye” improves on this season’s utterly underwhelming premiere by taking a much bigger step toward challenging these characters in ways we haven’t seen before. Where emotional problems stemming from aging children in the Dunphy household, and Gloria’s coddling of Manny and how it will effect her once he leaves for college, were only hinted at previously, they take center stage here. For the first time it seems like the show is ready to start giving Manny, Alex, Luke, and Haley—okay, Haley might be a bit of a stretch—stories that see them adapting to their shift from teenagers to adults with more responsibility, and therefore more accountability when it comes to their actions.

It’s entirely possible, and even likely, that many episodes this season won’t deal with the changing dynamic of the family. Modern Family has a way of jumping around in time in order to continue to the bring the families together rather than try to focus on how they live separately. But that’s analysis for the future. As of now, “The Long Goodbye” is a good first step toward more dynamic, fresh storytelling. That’s not necessarily the case with Cam and Mitchell this week, as their story largely involves more secrets, bickering, and the continued obnoxious presence of Pam, but there’s admirable changes elsewhere.

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Essentially, “The Long Goodbye” finally follows through on some genuinely emotional storytelling by using college as the backdrop. Alex briefly went away last year, but this is the first time the show has given us a better sense of her life there. When Phil and Claire arrive for a visit, assuming they’ll be in Super Parent mode and helping Alex clean up, buy food, and all the other things good parents do for their kids, they’re surprised to find her coping all on her own. She has all the food she could need, her room is tidy, and she’s excelling with her academics, creating a robot hand that consistently beats Phil at Rock, Paper, Scissors.

While Phil and Claire’s reaction is certainly predictable—they fret about not being needed before crashing Alex’s lab in embarrassing fashion—but it also feels real. I think what’s most interesting is that Claire and Phil’s panicked reaction isn’t necessarily a result of Alex doing so well, but rather a consequences of their other children having jobs and are starting to find their way in the world. Alex has always been the grounded, independent one, so it doesn’t make much sense that she’d need them now, despite their assertion that she’s scattered.

Consider that “The Long Goodbye” sees Luke and Haley working at the club, in a largely meaningless B-plot. With those two doofuses working and finding their way in the adult world, Alex is the go-to kid for Phil and Claire’s emotional neediness. Luke and Haley have jobs, and while they may struggle from time to time—Haley gets wrapped up in being an assistant for a gold-digging member of the club—they’re on a stable path. Alex, on the other hand, is dealing with a lot of change, and she’s living away from home. Naturally, Claire and Phil see her as the one that might need their guidance, despite her entire childhood telling them otherwise.

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There’s similar potential in Manny going off to college, and while Modern Family doesn’t quite dig into the psychology of his leaving in the same way, it does provide enough emotional catharsis to warrant cautious optimism for the future. I like that Jay, Gloria, Manny, and Joe get their moment at the end of the episode to embrace and muse on the necessity of family, and how that bond doesn’t go away just because someone leaves the house and moves on to a new chapter of their life. If Modern Family is going to stay fresh, it needs to have more moments like this. There needs to be less bickering, less of Jay making fun of Manny, or Haley getting into ridiculous situations, and more instances of the show finding ways to craft comedic moments while embracing the emotional growth of its youngest characters.

Stray observations

  • I might rag on Cam and Mitchell for always arguing, but I do think there’s genuine marital wisdom in their “we’re not terrible, they are!” moment. Dragging other people is integral to a good relationship. It keeps you close.
  • Luke can’t believe that Alex gets a care package and he doesn’t. Claire: “You live in a care package.”
  • “And because you’re a Theater major, this is the biggest apartment you’ll ever have.”
  • “Well it appears we found our smoking bun.”
  • Phil would think that Alex’s robotic hand is an “electric mitten holder.”
  • “Like Drew Barrymore, I’m an adorable firestarter.”
  • Really nice visual comedy with Luke and Mrs. Rappaport as the Angel and Devil on Haley’s shoulder, followed by the “in one ear, out the other” gag.

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